By Linda Bordoni
Welcoming Pope Francis on the tarmac was a group of religious and political authorities representing the many different realities of Iraq's diverse make-up, as well as a group of Iraqi citizens and two children with a posy of flowers for the Holy Father.
The welcoming delegation included the Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, as well as representatives of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Baghdad, the Latin Archdiocese of Baghdad, the Syriac Archeparchy of Baghdad, and the Armenian Archeparchy of Baghdad, as well as the country’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Abdellatif Mshatat, the President of the Republic and his wife.
Pilgrim of peace
Pope Francis will spend four days in the Middle Eastern nation during which he will travel north and south as “a pilgrim seeking peace, fraternity and reconciliation”, as he himself has said.
His intense schedule foresees moments of prayer and encounter with Christian communities and representatives of the Catholic Church in Iraq, as well as meetings to foster interreligious dialogue.
As per protocol, the Pope’s first official meeting takes place at the Presidential Palace. During the courtesy visit he meets privately with President Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim.
The palace itself was constructed on the orders of King Faisal II who headed the nation between 1953 and 1958 after the murder of the reigning monarch. It was former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s preferred place to meet visiting Heads of State. The palace itself served as the MNF-I Headquarters of coalition troops during the occupation of Iraq, as well as the primary base of operations for the American diplomatic mission in Iraq until the opening of the new US Embassy in Baghdad in 2009. It was then returned to Iraqi control.
After the courtesy visit with the President and his entourage, Pope Francis meets with political, civil and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, the business world and representatives of cultural institutions.
Pope’s greetings to journalists aboard the papal flight
During the four and a half hour flight, Pope Francis greeted the journalists travelling with him aboard the Alitalia A330 airplane.
"I am happy to resume my travels," he said, describing this visit as "a duty to a land that has been martyred for so many years."
He thanked those present for their work and their company. The director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, expressed everyone’s excitement to be travelling again after a hiatus of 15 months due to coronavirus restrictions.
He thanked Pope Francis "for his willingness to make a pilgrimage to Iraq", and recalled his words a few days ago when he said he did not want to disappoint the people twice, referring to Pope St John Paul II wish to visit Iraq and the fact that he was never able to do so.
Bruni then thanked the Pope for allowing quite a few journalists to accompany him on the journey, something that “was not to be taken for granted.”
National Journalism Award
He said there were "74 journalists from 15 countries" on the papal flight. During the exchange, the Pope was presented with a "Maria Grazia Cutuli" Italian National Journalism Award 2021, on the twentieth anniversary of her death in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
On the certificate, Pope Francis is described as a "Special Envoy" who "wearing out his shoes, travels the streets of the world in the name of Faith, Fraternity and Peace".